Abraham Lincoln High School’s boys basketball coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton didn’t want to talk about who Lance Stephenson is on the court.
The world already knows that person. He is still the brash and competitive player who took New York City by storm for four seasons and now starts for the Indiana Pacers. That Stephenson exudes immense confidence and is not afraid to challenge the Knicks’ J.R. Smith or Miami’s LeBron James.
Morton wanted to talk about the Stephenson most people don’t know, a caring, smiling, respectful and always-willing-to-give 23-year-old who is seen often around his Lincoln family. He wanted to talk about the one who attends the Coney Island school’s alumni games and his jersey retirement ceremony.
“He made the impression that ‘I’m Lance [on the court]’ and ‘off the court I’m a different person,’ ” Morton said. “ ‘My personality is not as rough.’ ”
Sometimes the rough side spills over. There was a sexual assault charge in 2008. Then in August 2010, he was arrested for pushing his girlfriend down the stairs, after being drafted by Indiana a month earlier.
That incident was the start of a humbling maturation process that led the four-time city champion to where he is today — an NBA starter and role model. Stephenson often texts with current Lincoln star Isaiah Whitehead. He’s given him advice on playing, handling the pressure and the media, and on how to pick a college.
“He’s been through it already. He’s been through the worst, and he’s been through the best of the NBA, college and high school,” Whitehead said.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Stephenson. There were calls for the Pacers to cut ties because he was more trouble than he was worth. He played limited minutes his first two years while learning how to be a better point guard.
Opportunity finally came this past season when Danny Granger’s knee injury thrust Stephenson into a starting job. He showed he belonged when his stellar 25-point Game 6 performance in the second round against the Knicks pushed the Pacers into the Eastern Conference final. He had arrived.
“It took me awhile,” Stephenson said. “I learned a lot by watching other players. I finally got my opportunity to show that I can be on the floor.”
Still, none of that changed his connection with Coney Island. Morton said he comes back every free moment he gets. Still a neighborhood kid at heart, he appears to have learned from his mistakes and is willing to help others avoid making them.
“He comes back and he’s tangible,” Morton said. “These guys can see him.”
They see what he’s become, and where some maturity and hard work can get you.Reach reporter Joseph Staszewski at jstaszewsk